What is the significance of peaceable assembly to the development of society, citizenship, civic life and democracy? The concept of peaceable* assembly or the right of assembly is raised by the global narrative of traffic islands and, in particular, the legal context of pedestrian accessible traffic islands in the United States (i.e. they are the freest place in the American city for assembly).
The laws of assembly – how and when people can gather to engage in a collective, peaceable activities of citizenship – greatly influence the material conditions possible for civic life. The right to assembly without a permit as long as it is peaceable enables and, perhaps, creates a social, interpersonal context in civic life. This context serves as the foundation for direct, collective civic engagement and socializing. Without it, political involvement and the value of citizenship is greatly constrained and peaceable assemblies are turned into symbolic performances rather than collective activities that can be a check and balance on representative democracy.
A great deal of attention has been placed on deregulating the market in the name of freedom. This perspective as well as others, such as free speech, focus on the protection of individual liberties. There is another notion of liberty that comes from the origins of democracy globally (i.e. the Athenians) and in Colonial U.S. (i.e. in the 18th and 19th century). It is the liberty to participate and influence political and civic decision making. Unlike the free market or personal liberties, this notion of freedom is of collective liberty. In a republic or representative democracy, the liberty to participate in one’s own governance takes the form of peaceable assembly and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Both of these first amendment rights and global human rights have been buried and over-regulated.
This essay focuses on the liberty of peaceable assembly. It invites us to reorient our understanding of freedom and democracy and see that which has been hidden in plain view, on the traffic island. In this case, liberty has been hidden in history and behind decades of court rulings leaving an artifact in the urban landscape in the form of pedestrian accessible traffic islands as the freest place for assembly without a permit. A reorientation of the ideas of liberty and democracy reveals that liberty is highly restrained globally and we are largely unaware of the history and complexity of a key aspect of liberty: the difference between personal/private liberty and collective/public liberty.
Re-informing ourselves about the complexity of liberty and democracy, empowers us to apply deregulation equally to both personal/private liberty, on one hand, and collective/public liberty, on the other hand. To favor one form of liberty over the other without an awareness of this, results in a hidden imbalance that puts all liberty at risk.
A Constitutional Right and A Forgotten History
The right to peaceable assembly – to meet or congregate in publicly owned space to deliberate, express and promote political ideas and viewpoints, which was historically associated with the right to petition the government for redress of grievances – is of central importance to our understanding of what is a city and who creates it. It also frames the pedestrian accessible traffic island as both a quixotic quirk of history and a compelling place of collective and constructive potential.
In the United States, understanding this issue takes us to the Bill of Rights as well as a larger historical context. The right of the people, peaceably to assemble in order to consult for the common good is a constitutional right protected by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. [emphasis added]
Tracing this back, this right was also included in 1774 in the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress:
The inhabitants of the English colonies in North-America, by the immutable laws of nature, the principals of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following rights: They have a right peaceably to assemble, consider their grievances, and petition the king: and that all prosecutions, prohibitory proclamations, and commitments for the same are illegal. (NCD 8 ) [emphasis added]
Conceptually, the essence of assembly can be traced back to the Athenians in ancient Greece, where the concept of a useful citizen centered on participating in discussions and decision making for the sake of the public good. The strength of this conviction of participation is conveyed in this famously classic statement about democracy by the Athenian leader Pericles as part of a public funeral oration after a battle.
“Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as un-ambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.” From the History of the Pelopennesian War (Book 2.34-46) by Thucydides [emphasis added].
So strong was this belief that “idiot” was a derogatory term literally meaning “of one’s own” or private. This history points to a longstanding relation among peaceable or public assembly, socio-political life and the city. In the United States, it is reflected in the first amendment. Additionally, assembly was a significant part of 18th and 19th century American life in the form of public meetings, public meals and spontaneous parades or demonstrations. But the interpretation of the first amendment changed in the end of the 19th century in several ways. This created a shift in American culture and civic life as well as political life. It impacted both how, when and where people can use public space and their power or liberty to participate/influence governance. The political role of the citizen was reduced to voting every few years. Meanwhile, assembly went from being a check and balance on representative democracy to a symbolic performance and ritualized act lacking substantive political relevance. (see below: The Neglected Right of Assembly by Tabitha Abu El-Haj for an extensive historical and legal analysis published in the 2009 UCLA Law Review).
Peaceable Assembly and the Interconnection between Political and Social Life
Civic and street life in early America reveals a connection between the social and the political that has vanished. In the early part of the U.S., the streets and public spaces were used, without any need for permits, for street festivities, parades and public meetings. Since no permits were needed, there could be a spontaneous and organic movement from a public meeting to a public meal or march. Groups could split and go in different ways. Those without means to rent hotel spaces for election festivities or other events, had free access to public space as long as they were peaceable gatherings and had a civic value. (Playing musical instruments were not protected under peaceable assembly. Today we see this as freedom of expression but in the 18th and 19th century, music and merrymaking were not viewed as natural or constitutional rights of a citizen in and of themselves. They were only protected when they were part of an assembly that was a political action. See Abu El-Haj, Neglected Right of Assembly, P 577.) Additionally, it gave citizens the capacity to reach their audience including those who may not agree with them.
Consider the following in reflecting on civic life in the streets of the United States at this time:
“While Boston’s elite celebrated Washington’s Birthday in 1793 with a civic feast at Concert Hall, a mixed race group of mariners, laborers, and artisans held their own celebration in the streets….Over three-quarters of the Federalist civic feasts [for the Fourth of July] took place at expensive hotels and inns[,] . . . over half of the oppositional Independence Day feasts were staged in the open air. [Between 1793 and 1801] Simon P. Newman, Parades And The Politics Of The Street: Festive Culture In The Early American Republic
“The festivities typically began with a parade or procession in which townsmen would march by trades, militia companies, and other groupings to a church, meeting hall, or public square. There a lengthy program would be held, featuring political and patriotic music (usually including at least one song written for the day), a reading of the Declaration of Independence, a prayer or sermon, and an oration by some local political activist. . . . Finally the assembled group would retire to a hotel, tavern, or outdoor space, depending on the prosperity and location of the organizers, for a community banquet.” Jeffrey L. Pasley, The Cheese and the Words: Popular Political Culture and Participatory Democracy in the Early American Republic
Another example is the importance of the right to assemble peaceably and women’s right to vote.
“Perhaps American women would not have the vote today if their predecessors had not taken to the streets. Americans would have ignored the suffragists if they had not delivered their message so publicly. During the decade before congress approved the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919, suffragists were innovators in soapbox speaking at “open-air” meetings, outdoor pageants, petition drives, picketing, civil disobedience, and use of symbolic expression, all manifestations of their exercise of the right of assembly” Linda Lumsden, Rampant Women: Suffragist and the Right of Assembly, Univ of Tennessee Press, 1997
This history raises two central questions: the meaning of peaceable assembly in relation to notions of liberty, and the impact of peaceable assembly – a political right – on the social context of civic life. We typically consider freedom an individual right. Assembly is an example of a collective right. What is the relation between individual liberty and group liberty? Individual liberties protect the rights of each and every one of us, as individuals. Examples include speech and private business. Group liberties are rights that exist only in concert with other individuals and reference the human need for other humans. For example, the right to assemble peaceably without the need for permission to discuss issues of the common good, to create gatherings for this purpose, freely and peacefully. Some rights appear to cover both individual and group domains such as freedom of religion, speech, and the right to petition for redress of grievances. In the U.S., the notion of individual liberty has framed the understanding of democracy. As a result, we have lost an appreciation and understanding of collective/public liberty, resulting in an over-regulation of public/collective liberty. Moreover, its created an oblivion about the meaning of assembly and collective liberty, and its importance to the stability of a representative democracy and civic life.
The right to peaceable assembly without permit also enables a social context for political and civic life. This context fosters meaningful, enduring social bonds in our civic space and life. This is at the core of social and political change because social and interpersonal bonds are the glue that keeps citizens engaged with each other and the issue. This is the fuel needed for the requisite sustained effort that political and civic life demands. (“Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.” – Max Weber)
Permits Allowed for the First Time and a History Vanishes
The most important change occurred when the Massachusetts State Supreme Court affirmed Boston’s ordinances requiring permits and fees for public assembly in three separate cases. Two of the cases were affirmed by the Federal Supreme Court, setting a precedent. Two of the three cases involved the use of Boston Commons by a preacher. The third case was the use of a park in Boston by an individual for a political speech. In the second case against the preacher, Justice Holmes wrote the following now famous statement while on the Massachusetts Supreme Court:
“For the legislature absolutely or conditionally to forbid public speaking in a highway or public park is no more an infringement of the rights of a member of the public than for the owner of a private house to forbid it in his house. When no proprietary rights interfere, the Legislature may end the right of the public to enter upon the public place by putting an end to the dedication to public uses. So it may take the lesser step of limiting the public use to certain purposes.” Commonwealth v Davis (Davis II)
In none of these three cases, the tradition of public assembly and street parades in the U.S. was considered by the court. Furthermore, the court overlooked the fact that assemblies were only curtailed by the state when there was a breach of the peace. The court also refrained from examining the substance of the right to assemble peaceably. Finally, these rulings took place 28 years before DeJonge v. Oregon (1937) when the Federal Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment applied to states and peaceable assembly, thus the federal court had to accept the state court’s ruling at the time.
In 1939, in Hague v. CIO, the Federal Supreme Court affirmed that the use of “streets and parks . . . for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions . . . has, from ancient times, been a part of the privileges, immunities, rights, and liberties of citizens.” But the court did not examine the question of issuing permits in general nor historically. Instead, they assumed permits were allowed (per the Davies ruling) and only ruled on how permits can be applied (in a fair and impartial manner).
“We have no occasion to determine whether, on the facts disclosed, the Davis case was rightly decided, but we cannot agree that it rules the instant case. Wherever the title of streets and parks may rest, they have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions. Such use of the streets and public places has, from ancient times, been a part of the privileges, immunities, rights, and liberties of citizens. The privilege of a citizen of the United States to use the streets and parks for communication of views on national questions may be regulated in the interest of all; it is not absolute, but relative, and must be exercised in subordination to the general comfort and convenience, and in consonance with peace and good order; but it must not, in the guise of regulation, be abridged or denied.” Hague v. CIO, 307 U.S. 496, 515, 1939 [emphasis added]
Thus, the courts have never reviewed Davis regarding the constitutionality of permits and took it for granted that the ruling was adequate eventhough it was made before the 14th amendment was passed. From this point forward, we see the Supreme Court taking for granted the notion that permit requirements for assembly were permissible within certain parameters without ever examining the substance and tradition of the First Amendment protection. This is part of the foundation of Federal Supreme Court rulings on the First Amendment, and has a tremendous impact of the richness, meaning and quality of American democracy and everyday civic life.
Did the Law Change the Society?
When the courts allowed cities to require permits for assembly, it changed the way we use public space. Moreover, it altered our consciousness about what is citizenship and our possible role in political decision making aside from voting. The change in law altered society. It prompted a significant shift in American culture in the 18th and 19th century. At the time citizens actively used streets, squares and parks for spontaneous parades, festivities and gatherings that were both political and social. These events took place as part of everyday life as well as elections and holidays launching “the politics of the street into the mainstream of American politics.” (Simon Newman, Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic, 1997, p. 192)
The ability to hold these events spontaneously and in public with only 1 restriction – they remain peaceable – was central to their legal, political and social value. While some events were related to elections and holidays, others were assemblies as part of a variety of political viewpoints that sought to be heard. The absence of permit requirements empowered a diversity of gatherings that allowed people to fluidly shift from an assembly to a march or parade.
This gave tremendous voice and agency to non-elected individuals to communicate their beliefs to society and congress. “[A] decision to strike, a meeting’s outcome, or a festive gathering could move quickly from an assembly into a marching line that conveyed a message to coworkers, neighbors, and the city at large.” (Susan G. Davies, Parades and Power, Street Theater in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia, 1986, p. 33). It also served as an important component of the system of checks and balances that is a hallmark of representative democracy in the United States. Reaching back into the forgotten beginning of peaceable assembly and what it meant, consider the voice of this gathering in Petersburg, Virginia:
“A 1786 gathering of citizens in Petersburg noted that ‘it is the indisputable right of Freemen to assemble at any time in a peaceable and orderly manner to discuss their public grievances, and if necessity shall require, to petition or remonstrate to their Rulers thereon.’” (Raymond C. Bailey, Popular Influence Upon Public Policy: Petitioning In Eighteenth-Century Virginia, p 23, 1979).
Instead of regulations abridging the right to assemble peaceably in the name of safety, the question of public safety during this time was handled by criminal law rather than civil law. And there was a balance between the right of people to freely gather and the right of others to not be violently threatened. But civic disobedience such as blocking a street to do a parade was acceptable as long as there was no property damage or bodily violence. Thus, an assembly had to have the likelihood of becoming a riot or it would have to actually become disorderly for it to be dispersed. The implementation of permits to control events is strident because it meant all assemblies were controlled before anything ever happened and even without indication that something might happen rather than controlling only those assemblies that were proven to be disorderly. The use of permits, therefore, puts greater protection on individual liberty than on group liberty. This runs so deep that our definition of public safety is entirely focused on protecting property and bodily injury. Public safety departments are never working to making it easier for individuals to gather as citizens, form a public in public, and interact in a dynamic, social and political, civic manner.
Another important change shifted the relation between assembly and the right of petition, which was of greater importance than the right of assembly until 1937, when in De Jonge v. Oregon the Supreme Court said, the right of assembly is:
[C]ognate to those of free speech and free press and is equally fundamental…. [It] is one that cannot be denied without violating those fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all civil and political institutions— principles which the Fourteenth Amendment embodies in the general terms of its due process clause…. The holding of meetings for peaceable political action cannot be proscribed. Those who assist in the conduct of such meetings cannot be branded as criminals on that score. The question . . . is not as to the auspices under which the meeting is held but as to its purposes; not as to the relation of the speakers, but whether their utterances transcend the bounds of the freedom of speech which the Constitution protects. (De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353, 364, 365 (1937). See also Herndon v. Lowry, 301 U.S. 242right of assembly.) (1937).) (excerpted from Supreme Justia’s website on the
(Note: a similar political-historical analysis of the right to petition reveals that it was a significant part of U.S. history and, like assembly, has been forgotten over time. The right to petition was collapsed into the right of free speech and expression as a result of the petitions from abolitionists which flooded the government. Prior to this, “[i]n colonial America, the right of citizens to petition their assemblies was an affirmative, remedial right which required governmental hearing and response.” — John C. Calhoun (Senate, 1840) see A Short History of the Right To Petition Government for the Redress of Grievances. Higgonson, Yale Law Review, 1986.)
Finally, and of extreme importance, the right of assembly in the early-mid 20th century began to be folded into free speech and the public forum doctrine (the public forum doctrine developed out of a series of Supreme Court rulings and became the standard for governing assembly and free speech). Although it has not been argued to the court, this change is critical and contentious because there is a fundamental difference between these two protections that has been forgotten: free speech is about individual expression while assembly and the right to petition are about collective discussion and action. The right to assemble and petition the government by citizens who are not elected officials was the standard of democracy in the United States in the 19th century; in terms of the United States, it served as an important, check and balance on representative democracy that citizens could directly enact. It also resulted in parades, festivities and public meetings on streets and in parks, which were a significant element of the culture of the United States at the time.
In truth, individual free speech as expression and collective assembly and petitioning as actions are both essential and reliant upon each other. Thus, as assembly and petition have been folded into speech, both have lost political relevant and efficacy in the experience of the city, citizenship, democracy and the structure of society. But this change that happened in the courts, did not happen in a vacuum. Outside the courthouse, the American Republic was beginning a radical reorientation.
The Rise of Violence in the Streets of America
The change in law did not happen in a vacuum. By the mid 19th century, civic unrest in American streets became more frequent as a result of these assemblies. To what extent did cities attempts and, finally, the courts agreement of regulating peaceable assembly come about due to an increasing amount of unrest? The middle decades in the United States, through the Civil War, saw municipal battles and violence compared to the idyllic qualities of civic street life depicted in this painting by John Lewis Krimmel in 1819 titled “Independence Day Celebration in Centre Square.”
By the 1848, and for over 15 years, civic unrest gripped San Francisco, New Orleans, Philadelphia and New York City even before the Civil War consumed the nation.
While this didn’t stop the use of streets for civic engagement, many of which were still peaceful, it did reflect a change in the safety and peacefulness of these citizen activities. And by the end of the Civil War, a new landscape of civic engagement emerged, which ends up being reflected, eventually, in the abridgment of the right to assemble. It is hard to believe that the experience of civil unrest in the streets did not impact the evolution of the right to assemble from being free to requiring permission and often a fee.
Did this rise of street violence trigger increased concern of the safety of private property and personal life in public? When we think about safety, perhaps we need to consider two different types. One is private safety of property and life such as one’s car or being able to safely walk down the street. A second is the safety of the republic or state. This second aspect – republic safety – also has two elements. One is protection against external threats, which is the duty of the military and something the U.S. has clearly not forgotten. The second are threats from within and the role and power of citizens to act in response to this. This second threat and the role and powers of citizens to protect against it has atrophied.
Today, the role of the citizen is constrained to voting. Someone who goes beyond that is considered an activist. In the origins of democracy, participation was far beyond a vote every other year (or less). And those who were free – which meant you were a male, Athenian landowner – but choose to focus on their private ambition rather than their public duty, were derogatorily called idiots and thought of as useless.
This notion of the role of the citizen is not limited to an ancient memory. The author of the Declaration of Independence and the 3rd president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, said the following, in letters to various people:
“Divide the counties into wards of such size as that every citizen can attend, when called on, and act in person…” [Letter to Samuel Kercheval 1816]
“Where every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic, or of some of the higher ones, and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day….” [Letter to C. Joseph Cabell 1816]
“[P]ublic education, and the sub-division of counties into wards, I consider the continuance of republican government as absolutely hanging on these two hooks.” [Letter to Joseph C. Cabell 1814]
In short, not only did one of the founding fathers of the United States feel citizenship and freedom required participation in political decision making, he it viewed as a central element in protecting the republic. A defense that comes before the use of force in every day life, which is reflected in the U.S. Bill of Rights, where the First Amendment right to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances come before the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Traffic Island Absurdity – the Freest Place in the American Urban Landscape
Today, the evolution of law and public space has created a surprising context for peaceable or public assembly in relation to the availability of public space. Pedestrian accessible traffic islands in U.S. cities are the only place you can freely gather at any time without a fee or permit as long as you adhere to certain guidelines. While it is possible to assemble on sidewalks or parks, the application of the aforementioned guidelines are much more restrictive. For example, most parks and beaches close at sunset or 10pm and sidewalks are difficult to assemble on without obstructing pedestrian traffic.
In discussions with Munger, Tolles and Olson (MTO), which provided Islands of LA with pro-bono legal advice on the use of traffic islands as public space instrumental to Island Law and the guidelines, the question arose as to whether even a benign community gathering such as a picnic in public space could be construed as a type of participation in political life particularly if it was in reference to the use of a space in relation to the public forum doctrine and the right of assembly. It is unknown how the high court would rule on this perspective but, with this in mind, Islands of LA has explored the use of traffic islands for activities such as an evening picnic discussion and stroll or a sound game that intertwine a discussion of these spaces for assembly with social interaction and small festivities.
A Speck of City
The changes in law in the U.S. and in notions of the citizen going back to the ancient Athenians dovetails a change in the built environment from the polis in Athens to the modern megalopolises all over the globalized world. The built environment changed from the concept of a city with public spaces in between where the co-existence and engagement of difference for socio-political purposes was supported to the concept of urbanization with an agglomeration of homes and the requisites for their existence, i.e. transportation, workplace, marketplace, entertainment space, sewage, water and power (see Pier Vitelli’s Toward the Archipelago for an extensive analysis that anchors this perspective).
From a vantage point informed by a legal analysis of peaceable assembly combined with a critique of the built environment, the pedestrian accessible traffic island hidden in plain view reveals itself as the freest place in the American city, as a speck of city in a sea of urbanization, as the only place Americans can assemble peaceably at any time without a fee or permit, albeit in small groups. This is called shrinky dink freedom.
Notes and Additional Links
Islands of LA will continue to research this complex legal and cultural history and revise this essay accordingly. Below is a short list of articles and related content about the right to peaceable assembly. For a listing of case rulings related to peaceable assembly, visit Islands Law.
- The Neglected Right of Assembly by Tabitha Abu El-Haj. Two versions: two page summary and the full 47 page essay published in 2009 the UCLA Law Review (pdf) This article considers changes in both our understanding of the constitutional right of peaceable assembly and our regulatory practices with respect to public assemblies. It shows that through the late nineteenth century the state could only interfere with gatherings that actually disturbed the public peace, whereas today the state typically regulates all public assemblies, including those that are both peaceful and not inconvenient, before they occur, through permit requirements. Through this regulatory shift, and judicial approval of it, the substance of the right of peaceable assembly was narrowed. The history recounted in this Article is significant because it provides insight into the democratic and social practices the right was intended to protect-insight that cautions against collapsing the collective right of assembly into the individual right of free expression. ABSTRACT FROM AUTHOR.
- Freedom of Assembly and Petition edited by Margaret M. Russell. This is an excellent collection of essays on assembly and petition. From Margaret Russell’s Introduction to the Book: “Of the forty-five words comprising the First Amendment, the least recognized…are the guarantees of its final section: the Assembly and Petition Clause. Case law construing the clause is remarkably thin; by comparison, US Supreme Court jurisprudence interpreting the Establishment, Free Exercise, Speech, and Press Clauses is voluminous. Before the 1980s, legal scholarship on the right to petition was nearly nonexistent; even now, legal scholarship on the right to assembly is sparse….[T]here is no major legal casebook that includes more than a brief mention of these core liberties. The Assembly and Petition Clause has not disappeared from the Bill of Rights; it has simply fallen from public, scholarly, and judicial attention.”
- Right to Assemble by Lisa Bancuk provides an overview of the right to assemble and relates it to the philanthropy sector
- A Legal Analysis on the Rights of Assembly and Petition from FindLaw
- Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in the American City during the Nineteenth Century by Mary Ryan
- Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia by Susan Davis
A partial list from Wikipedia of Human Rights instruments where the concept of the right to peaceably assemble is protected includes:
- European Convention on Human Rights – Article 11
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – Article 21
- India- Fundamental Rights in India
- Republic of Ireland – Guaranteed by Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution of Ireland
- Germany – Art. 8 GG
- Canada – S. 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which forms part of the Constitution Act, 1982
- France – article 431-1 of the Nouveau Code Pénal
- Hong Kong Basic Law Section 27
* Peaceable vs peaceful: peaceable means as peaceful as possible. Peaceful, on the other hand, means completely from from disturbance. The founders intended for people to have the right to a collective voice to act and participate as citizens. This may result in someone blocking the right of way but doing so in a peaceable (as peaceful as possible) manner. In short, an assembly could be a disturbance as long as it wasn’t violent. As noted above, this is no longer the case. You can’t disturb the peace or right of way. Moreover, today, you need a permit which means this isn’t a freedom, except on traffic islands where you can gather at any time of day or not although you still can’t block the right of way. Note, freedom reigns on pedestrian accessible traffic islands because it is a place where you don’t need permits. This is because freedom, by definition, does not require permission.
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